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Advice for doctors during the COVID-19 pandemic

As a result of the rapid spread of COVID-19, the UK’s healthcare system is currently under significant strain. The pressure caused by this burden has led to thousands of elective procedures being cancelled, healthcare professionals being redeployed away from their normal work, and retired doctors and nurses being contacted by their regulator asking them to return to the front line.

In this unprecedented situation, it is inevitable that healthcare and facilities will not meet the usual standards, and the normal way of delivering healthcare will dramatically change. To date there has been tremendous public goodwill and support shown to NHS staff, who will continue to work tirelessly in the weeks and likely months ahead. However, human nature dictates that in some cases there will inevitably be issue taken with some of the care provided and doctors, many of whom will work round the clock, will be called to account for their actions, potentially by the GMC. Keeping a few key principles in mind will help protect you in the weeks and months ahead.

In a statement (issued jointly with other professional healthcare regulators across the UK) the GMC has already acknowledged that doctors may have concerns about decisions they need to make in order to provide the best care in challenging circumstances. There is a recognition that “in highly challenging circumstances, professionals may need to depart from established procedures in order to care for patients and people using health and social care services,” and that healthcare professionals “may feel anxious about how context is taken into account when concerns are raised about their decisions and actions in very challenging circumstances.” In terms of guidance and reassurance the GMC’s position (absent any specific further specific guidance at this stage), is that any concern “will always be considered on the specific facts of the case, taking into account the factors relevant to the environment in which the professional is working.” The joint statement adds, “…We would also take account of any relevant information about resource, guidelines or protocols in place at the time.

Whilst the GMC (and other healthcare regulators) have committed to take into account factors relevant to the environment in which a doctor is working, inevitably this guidance is very general. In practical terms you should bear in mind the following:

  • If you have concerns about system failures and risk of harm to patients it remains important that you escalate those concerns with colleagues/management, and in writing where possible;

  • In addition to the GMC’s own guidance as set out in Good Medical Practice, ensure you are aware of the guidelines and protocols issued by your NHS Trust/organisation;

  • Make sure you understand your own level of clinical competence – this is particularly true for those professionals returning to practice following retirement;

  • Be clear with your colleagues, patients and others about your level of competence and expertise;

  • Discuss patient’s expectations with them, and be clear about what can and cannot be achieved. Ensure all options discussed with the patient and/or their family are clearly recorded;

  • As always, make sure all the relevant information, your decision making and discussions with patient are noted clearly in the patient records;

  • Be aware of your own health – make sure you self-isolate if required.

If you have any queries regarding this advice, please contact the PMP medico-legal helpline to ensure you receive the right support and advice when you are trying to do your best in less than ideal circumstances.

If you have any questions or comments in relation to this article please contact

Claire Petts
Partner, Clyde & Co LLP

Judith Duffin
Consultant, Clyde & Co LLP

Clyde & Co LLP and Premium Medical Protection Ltd accept no responsibility for loss occasioned to any person acting or refraining from acting as a result of material contained in this summary. No part of this summary may be used, reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, reading or otherwise without the prior permission of Clyde & Co LLP. © Clyde & Co LLP 2020

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